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Swedish Culture

What is Hair Jewelry? The History of an Almost Forgotten Art Form

December 26, 2022 By Lizzy Rode

Creating jewelry out of hair was once wildly popular across Europe and the United States, and today the almost forgotten art form is being revived in the Midwest. What comes to mind when you think of hair jewelry may seem a bit peculiar without knowing the history and sentimental importance of this art form that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Hairwork jewelry artisan and ASI instructor, Karen Keenan, will share everything you need to know about this fascinating artform.

What is hairwork jewelry? 

While it may seem strange, using human hair to make jewelry was once as widely practiced as embroidery, knitting or crocheting is today. In fact, the contemporary practice of keeping hair from a child’s first haircut may be an example of hairwork’s 19th century residual effect. Hairwork jewelry is made using human hair to create meaningful adornments for the body such are bracelets, brooches, necklaces, earrings, crowns, watch fobs and chains.

How is hairwork jewelry made?

The first step may be obvious, it’s obtaining the hair. The artist could be given hair by someone who commissions the work, from the artists own hair or purchased. You’ll need at least 12 inches to weave using a hair table with bobbins and counterweights to hold the hair while forming the jewelry. Applying a chosen pattern, strands of hair are woven into intricate cords, hollow or flat braids which are joined within either hair covered wood beads or metal findings to make the desired jewelry item. Sewing skills, patience and steady hands help to create uniform, strong and attractive jewelry!

What is the history of hairwork jewelry?

Traditional Swedish hair jewelry was most likely informed by other 1700’s fine processes such as weaving, needlework, wig making, and bobbin lacemaking. When two of these skills, wig and lace making, were not as popular during the latter part of the 18th century due to cultural and fashion trend changes, Våmhus cottage industry traveling artisans became motivated to transition known skills into new forms. The result was a new trend: hairwork. During a time of cultural sentimentality, this new adornment art struck a resounding chord across multiple continents.

In the 1800’s it was common for many Våmhus women and apprentices to leave their village for months, if not years, to work in major European cities to make commissioned hair jewelry. The good income made through their efforts contributed significantly to farm and community development back in their home village.

Knowledge about Våmhus hairworkers has been recorded over time, first in the form of hair pattern tutorials and then through the efforts of folklorist researchers. Articles continue to be written by authors from Sweden and beyond. During the mid-1900’s Swedish author Edith Unnerstad wrote two books for youth about the hairworkers of the 1800’s.

What is the cultural significance of hairwork jewelry in Våmhus, Sweden?

Hair jewelry was very popular throughout Europe and the U.S. before and during the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s up to WWII. As folk art and artistic trends do, this form of material application faded over time. However, one village in Sweden—Våmhus—to this day has consistently kept hairwork alive as a village identity. The distinguishing characteristic of table-made hairwork jewelry made by Våmhus artisans are items made with hair covered wooden bead findings.

Thanks to the dedication of the Hairwork Society, today’s visitors to Våmhus in the summertime can observe multi-generational villagers demonstrate the hairwork process at the Våmhus Gammelgård. The practice is kept vibrant by training school children how to make traditional hair jewelry during the school year.

How did you learn about hairwork jewelry?

My mother’s father, Carl A. A. Heed, was born and raised in Våmhus. In 1904, he immigrated to the United States, settling ultimately in Northern Minnesota. As a teenager, my Mom – Carol Mae Heed Sather – and her 3 sisters were gifted with Våmhus dråkts, which included a hairwork brooch. This Swedish artifact was of particular interest to me as a youngster. I have always been drawn to making things by hand, and with the encouragement of Våmhus relatives and villagers and the support of a folk art fellowship through the American Scandinavian Foundation in 2018. I was honored and grateful for the chance to learn the hairwork craft and carry on our family’s tradition of making hair jewelry and revive this almost forgotten art form in the Midwest. I learned from Master hairworker Joanna Svensson and in Våmhus over a two-week period in November 2018.

Since the training period in Sweden, I have been practicing, researching and exploring hairwork’s expressive possibilities while also teaching. The first class was at The Nordic Center in 2019. Following this class, I began to teach at North House Folk School. In November 2022 I presented a talk and a gimping workshop at the Museum of International Folk Art, in conjunction with an exhibit titled Dressing With Purpose: Belonging and Resistance in Scandinavia.

Join Karen’s upcoming class Table-Made Hair Jewelry Bracelet on Nov 9–12 to create your own hair jewelry and help preserve this art form!

Learn more about Karen’s hairwork art on her website, Facebook and Instagram.